Wednesday, February 13, 2019
If the intention of the proposers of the Green New Deal (GND) was to initiate a debate, they were wildly successful in this household. Joan sees it as welcome evidence that important people are finally getting serious about the climate crisis, and that consciousness-raising is more important than the specific proposals. I view it as a formula for disaster and national bankruptcy, and since I am the one writing this essay, it will be my perspective you have to endure.
As the debate is already off to a bad start, let me say that I find in Ms. Ocasio-Cortez many attractive features of youth, including vivacity, idealism, sincerity, good humor—qualities far from conspicuous in many of the grim conservatives whose criticisms of her often combine a personal element of churlishness with condescension. Admittedly her plan’s rollout was so maladroit that its proponents had to remove all specifics from the Internet, leaving only a feel-good congressional resolution. It is easy to play “Gotcha!” with such clauses of the now vanished GND document as a guaranteed income for those unwilling to work. I thought all along that was evidence of hasty copy-editing. What excites my incredulity are features the plan’s authors undoubtedly do mean. In an op-ed in yesterday’s Times David Brooks pretty well identifies those points, though even he falls for the suggestion that the “GND” is plausibly modeled on FDR’s New Deal. The New Deal was never a comprehensive program based in a fixed theory, let alone in “science”. Roosevelt himself frequently admitted its improvisational character and spoke without embarrassment of the experimental, trial-by-error nature of many of its disparate parts.
Most people I talk with do not recognize the origin of the phrase “New Deal”. They think it has something to do with the sort of deal-making supposedly associated with great deal-makers. In fact, it is a term borrowed from various card games, especially poker. A “new deal” is a fresh distribution of resources, allowing a new chance to players unsuccessful with the hand they were first dealt. It is thus a fresh beginning or a radical “reset”. Brooks also seems to accept the greenists' poor analogy between their program and the national effort demanded by World War II. As prodigious as the war effort was, it pales in comparison with what the GND would demand. In fact of all the pharaonic enterprises recorded by history, only one strikes me as vaguely analogous: Stalin’s Five Year Plans, which, though somewhat less radical than the GND, approximated its proposed duration. The Five Year Plans were designed to transform a vast agrarian nation whose land-use customs had developed over centuries into a heavy industrial powerhouse, and to do that in a very short time. A sideline was the pseudo-industrialization of agriculture. The plans were successful to the degree that they greatly increased the production of pig iron and electrical power. They certainly helped enable Soviet victory in the world war. But the human costs were obscene even for the criminal state established by the Bolsheviks. In order to prosecute a pharaonic project successfully it is necessary to gain or compel popular buy-in and get rid of all critics of Pharaoh, real or potential. There were hecatombs of the purged and liquidated, and armies of the enslaved. Stalin “reformed” agriculture by murdering or exiling millions and by turning the breadbasket of the Ukraine into a wilderness. It is inconceivable to me that Americans will voluntarily sign up for the GND. And if not voluntarily, under what duress?
This melodramatic question brings us to the larger issue of Socialism and its strangely recidivist appearance on the American political scene. Here we shall get nowhere without agreement on definitions. “Communism,” said Lenin “is Soviet power plus electrification.” Socialism is not elective democracy plus widely supported social programs, as in Scandinavia. It is not even the Welfare State program of the post-War Labour Party in Britain. No people has ever freely elected Socialism, which according to Marxist theory can be born only in violence. The fundamental requirement of Socialism as imagined by its inventors and implemented by its historical practitioners is total State ownership of the “means of production”. Its necessary corollary requires unchallengeable coercive State power to administer that arrangement. Those are both terrible ideas, and the fact that Donald Trump opposes them redeems them not one whit.
The history of Socialism—not the theory, but “actually existing Socialism” as its proponents called it—has been calamitous. Let me recommend two heavy academic books in defense of that sweeping condemnation: The Black Book of Communism (1997) and Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy: a History of Socialism in Russia (1994). Nor was it any accidental aberration or external intrusion, as opposed to the essential features of Socialism—state ownership of the means of production and state coercion demanded for their operation—that doomed the USSR, the East Block, Cambodia, half of Africa, Cuba, and, yes, Venezuela.
Yes, I know, it can’t happen here. In truth, I actually don’t think it can; and I am reluctant to engage further in competing apocalypticisms. The “road to serfdom” is certainly the last thing on the minds of the well-meaning proposers of the GND. But I fear a great deal else must not have been on their minds either—such as the potential damage that vatic half-bakedism can do to a very serious cause. To be fair, the GND is not half-baked. It’s been nowhere near an oven. As Brooks puts it: “The authors of the Green New Deal assume that technocratic planners can master the movements of 328 million Americans and design a transportation system so that ‘air travel stops becoming necessary.’ (This is from people who couldn’t even organize the successful release of their own background document.)”